The food is as good as it was before the fire
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., Sept. 8, 2006
2728 S. Congress, 443-4253
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pmwww.habana.com
Back in 2001, Ron and Yasbel Flores opened Habana for the first time. Through the years, they built a loyal following of regular customers who came for the authentic family recipes from Yasbel's Cuban roots. The dishes reflect the foods found on the island, not the stateside versions imported by expats into the Little Havana sections of Miami and New York City. Things were going quite well as the business grew and the place slowly expanded, until an electrical fire completely gutted the cafe during September of 2004. After opening two sister restaurants in the interim, Calle 6 (709 E. Sixth, 443-4252) and an outlet in San Diego, Habana Soco has reopened after almost two years.
It has been rebuilt from the slab up, with multilevel thatched-roof cabanas outside (complete with ceiling fans), a larger dining area, a patio that will open in the spring, and an overflow/private-party area. The old space could seem a little dark and claustrophobic, but the new design is open, colorful, and bright, with large windows all the way around. For its size, Habana Soco must have the biggest parking lot in town, so no fears in that department. There is a long mural of Havana's famed Malecón waterfront wrapping around the ceiling of the front room, with reggae and Cubano music on the sound system. In the bar section are taller tables with chairs: a personal gripe of ours. Designers love the look of these, but they are not comfortable and are hard to get in and out of.
The food is as good as it was before the fire. For those not familiar, Cuban food is heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine, using Caribbean ingredients. Its seasoning is based on a sofrito, a sautéed paste made from onion, garlic, and green bell peppers (with the occasional green chile thrown into the mix; Cuban food isn't particularly spicy).
From the large list of appetizers, we have tried several. The Tamal Cubano ($3.25) is excellent: sweet fresh corn is ground to make the masa, with a filling of roast pork, served with a spicy fresh tomato sauce; the acid and heat of the sauce balances well with the sweetness of the corn. The three-cheese Empanada ($3.25) was flaky and well stuffed. Papa Relleno ($4.75) was good: a large croquette of seasoned potato with a beef piccadillo filling, served with a mojo sauce (made from roast pork drippings, roast pork, garlic, and seasonings). It could have only been better with more filling.
Yuca Frita ($4.50) is nicely done: crispy batons of chunky yuca, moist on the inside, and served with mojo sauce. Mofongo ($5.50) was the only letdown: a croquette of mashed plantain, with garlic, a little chicharron (fried pork skin), and masitas (carnitas-like seasoned diced pork), served with a thin tomato sauce. It was too dry and crumbled apart, with the flavor dominated by the rather bland plantain. It needed more pork and more fat to be spot-on.
Among the entrées, we have tried the Fricasee de Pollo ($9.95), a delicious stew of tomato flavored with sofrito, green olive, and caper. The chicken pieces are bone-in and fall-apart tender, and the sauce perfectly balanced. The only drawback was two huge chunks of potato that should have been cut smaller before service. Ropa Vieja ($11.95) means "old clothes," a reference to the shredded appearance of the meat. It's made with flank steak that is long-cooked, shredded, and then cooked again, simmered in a tomato-based sauce. Habana makes a solid version, but we would have liked the meat shredded finer, with more sauce.
Lechon Asado ($11.95) is the definitive Cuban dish: citrus and garlic-marinated pork roast that is cooked until it falls apart, served with mojo sauce on the side. Habana's version is quite good and loaded with rich pork flavor, especially when topped with mojo and the marinated onion. Platano Loco ($8.50) is a Habana hybrid of the classic Cubano sandwich. The bread is replaced with a plantain sliced lengthwise, stuffed with ample amounts of lechon pork, ham, and Swiss cheese. It is delightful, but we would like the plantain cut thinner, perhaps into four slices instead of two; its thickness dominated the flavor of each bite.
Sides at Habana are all strong: the rice (white, and pigeon-pea-flavored yellow) is fluffy and moist; luscious red beans (our fave) and the richly seasoned black beans are creamy; boiled plantain with mojo and the delectable maduros (caramelized fried chunks of ripe sweet plantain) are exquisite. Tres Leches Cake ($4.25) is the definitive version: mile-high and moist, topped with cinnamon-infused whipped cream. We did experience some mildly palpitating sticker shock when the bar bill arrived: $6.50 for a well mojito (rum, sugar, lime juice, soda, and muddled mint) and $7.75 for a glass of Spanish red. Management could easily eliminate that shock by putting the prices on the drink menu. You might want to check before you order.